First, I must say that I am a Russo fan. I like his nuance, I love his characters, and I think his prose runs from heartbreakingly acute observations of human folly to laugh out loud entertainment.
In this novel, Russo follows the life of Lucy Lynch who never leaves the small town of Thomaston NY. The characters are complex, but also similar. In the relationships between Tessa and Big Lou and Sarah and Lucy we see the repetition of generations and the similarities that give us comfort (both with the marriages and the "one that got away" for each of the women).
One inconsistency in the novel was the way in which Lucy becomes Big Lou throughout. In the beginning (which is, of course Lucy's rose-colored version of his past), Lucy portrays himself as a bright boy who is enamored with his father. He wants to emulate Big Lou, but Lucy is more intelligent and like Tessa (even if he does not want to admit this). However, as he ages, Lucy just becomes Big Lou. He really stops questioning anything or seeing things that he knows are there. Despite Tessa's constant refrain while he is a child ("I wish you wouldn't pretend to not know what you do"), Lucy willfully grows up to be a big dumb lout like Big Lou.
As an intelligent person (who is impatient with willful ignorance like Tessa), I was surprised at how much I liked both Big Lou and Lucy. I was also surprised at the way that Sarah likes them both; despite her real passion for Bobby.
I found the footbridge from Lucy's childhood reminiscent of Ray Bradbury's Dandelion Wine stories. Not sure what else to say about that, but it was an interesting evocation for me of "middle America in the 1940-50s".
I wasn't sure about the point of view changes. I liked that the majority of the novel was first person Lucy's POV. And I understand the necessity of switching to Noonan and Sarah for a few chapters (after all Lucy has no knowledge of what happens outside of Thomaston). However, I think I would have liked it better if it was first person POV for this chapters, rather than third person with the narrator having omniscient view into Sarah and Noonan's thoughts.
I agree with some comments that Russo's portrayal of African Americans may be racist. Although his characters are very politically correct, and his observations of what happens in the 50s in small town American when a black boy sits next to a white girl are accurate, the actual portray is somewhat stereotypical. After all, neither of the Mocks are really interesting or substantial characters; Miss Rosa is just a black mammy; and Kayla is a needy girl. Certainly his intentions are good, but the actual picture that he paints implies the need for white assistance rather than providing any self liberation.
A common theme throughout was that people and circumstances don't really change: "the futility of struggling against his fundamental nature" and "things just were the way they were and that it was your job to figure out how they worked, not why." I really like that Russo manages to paint a fatalistic portrait of both the characters and their world and yet, we are hopeful that things will work out. Some of Big Lou's optimism shines through despite the knowledge that things will always essentially remain the same.
As always, Russo makes great commentary about human nature and thoughts. My favorite quotes are below:
"You don't identify with people worse off than you are. You make your deals, if you can, with those who have more, because you hope one day to have more yourself."
"Art, he'd come to believe, was little more than the principle of one thing leading to another, whereas love, insofar as he understood it, depended on a thing remaining forever what it was" and "A work of wart, any work of art, is a hopeful thing"
"After all, how does one invalidate a powerful feeling? Not with logic, surely."
"Enduring what couldn't be cured, she supposed, was what people meant by being adult."
"Could it be that acts committed in the privacy of darkness became wrong only in the public light of day? Wasn't that the very adult wisdom Perry Kozlowski had tried to convey to me"
"But do we ever tell 'the truth, the whole truth and nothing but, so help me God,' as my father used to say, to those we love? Or even to ourselves? Don't even the best and most fortunate of lives hint at other possibilities, at a different kind of sweetness and, yes, bitterness too? Isn't this why we can't help feeling cheated, even when we know we haven't been?"
Overall, it is a great composition with lots of strong and meaningful characters (even if Tessa and Sarah and Big Lou and Lucy are echoes of each other) and definitely worth reading.